Heart aflame? Dark chocolate to the rescue.
I was always skeptical about the alleged health benefits of chocolate, and suspected they might be a nutrition myth perpetuated by so-called “researchers” at places like the Hershey Research Institute. But researching the issue took on particular urgency for me when my husband took up amateur chocolate-making (his handiwork pictured above), and my kitchen became a minefield of tempting heart-shaped confections.
So you can imagine my delight to discover that a robust and credible body of scientific evidence supports a real and significant role for dark chocolate in lowering several risk factors of cardiovascular disease.
How it works
Cacao beans are one of nature’s richest sources of plant compounds called flavanoids. (Flavanoids are the same compounds responsible for the health-promoting effects of red wine and teas, by the way.) Research shows that the flavanoids in cacao help reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in your blood vessels, which is a major cause of plaque build-up in the arteries. They also have been shown to help inhibit platelet aggregation in the blood-- which is the same type of effect that aspirin therapy produces. This helps lower the risk of clotting that could lead to stroke. Oh, wait: there’s more. Cacao has also been shown to produce a reduction in blood pressure.
Recently, a well-designed, well-controlled Italian study published in the Journal of Nutrition examined the blood levels of a protein called C-Reactive Protein (CRP) in a group of about 5,000 healthy people over age 35. CRP is a protein produced by your liver during times of stress, acute illness and during chronic inflammatory conditions; when elevated, it is a very predictive risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The study showed that participants who ate approximately 1 oz of dark chocolate every 3 days had levels of CRP that would classify them as at “mild” risk for cardiovascular disease, compared with participants who ate no dark chocolate, whose CRP levels placed them at “moderate” risk for cardiovascular disease. The authors assert that these findings are the equivalent of a 26% decreased risk for a “future cardiovascular event” (that’s Italian for “heart attack or stroke”) among the dark chocolate-eating men and a 33% decreased risk for dark chocolate-eating women compared to non-dark chocolate-eating people.
What type of chocolate–and how much– will provide these benefits?
There is no standard definition of “dark” chocolate in the scientific studies that looked at the health benefits of chocolate. However, since we know that the more cocoa solids your chocolate has, the more flavonoids it has, as far as your heart is concerned, the darker the chocolate, the healthier the chocolate. Dark chocolate by definition must have no milk solids added, and you’ll see ranges of 30% cocoa to over 80% cocoa sold commercially. The higher the percent, the better: aim for at least 50%, and if you like how it tastes, go for those varieties with 65% or more.
As far as serving size goes, 1 oz two to three times per week seems to offer significant benefits. (Disappointing, I know.) Note that this is about equivalent to eating 2 Hershey Kisses-worth of dark chocolate per day. Some clever companies like Scharffen-Berger and Green & Black’s, are selling 1 oz bars of dark chocolate; Ghiradelli Squares are 1/2 oz each, Dagoba Organic sells fantastic 2 oz bars that range from 59% to 87% cocoa in a whole variety of interesting flavors, so you can split those with someone you love. Hershey’s has a line of 60% cocoa bars called “Extra Dark”, and Dove sells a 63% and a 71% version of their silky smooth chocolate bars.
Cacao nibs are a great way to get your flavonoid fix. The nibs are an intermediate step in the cacao processing chain, which are what you get after the cacao beans are fermented and shelled but before they are roasted and ground to produce the chocolate liquor from which cocoa powder or cocoa butter id derived. This means they have a higher flavonoid content then the end products. Health food stores often sell raw (unprocessed) nibs, which if eaten alone will be bitter, but you can stick them in a coffee grinder to make an antioxidant rich cocoa powder that can be added to skim milk and sweetened to your liking. (I’d use skim here because the nibs have plenty of fat already.) Alternatively, the clever people at Sweet Riot coat their yummy nibs in dark chocolate for a bit of extra sweetness. They sell cacao nibs covered in your choice of 50%, 65% or 70% dark chocolate in portion-controlled 1 oz tins. And they’re a socially-responsible, fair-trade company to boot. Look for them at Whole Foods or at the cash register area of your favorite health food store.
What’s the catch?
Dark chocolate, despite all of its healthful properties, still has fat and calories that must be accounted for…especially if you’re going to start on a regular regimen of it. Gaining weight from excessive chocolate consumption will surely cancel out whatever health benefits the chocolate is providing, so you’ll probably want to think about what gets cut out of the diet to make room for it. (Hint: aim for something with little nutritional value that’s been dragging your diet down, anyway). If you make this effort, the universe will meet you halfway: in a sign that the powers that be love us and want us to be happy, the type of saturated fat in dark chocolate–stearic acid–appears not to have the same LDL cholesterol-increasing effects as most saturated fats. Yay! So if you displace some empty calories in your diet for an equivalent amount of dark chocolate, it should be a pretty good trade-off.
Also, the Italian study’s results suggest that a little bit is good, but more is not better when it comes to keeping those CRP levels down. They found that people who consumed a single serving of slightly less than 1 oz every 3 days had CRP levels that were significantly lower than both non-consumers AND higher-consumers of dark chocolate. Scientific evidence for the old adage “everything in moderation,” if you will.
Note that NONE of this holds true for milk chocolate or white chocolate. Milk chocolate has very low levels of flavonoids and contains milkfat, a saturated fat which, unlike stearic acid, does increase LDL cholesterol. White chocolate contains no cocoa solids–and therefore no flavonoids– at all, and is higher in fat, sugar and calories than both dark or milk chocolate.bookmark it, RSS feed.